On Minimalism and Sustainability

December 14, 2011

Here is another peek behind-the-scenes at Quantified Self Labs, explaining how we work and why we have so much fun.

There are two basic principles we follow in a pretty hard-core way as we grow and nurture our community. They are tied tightly together, and make it really stress-free to do this QS work. These are minimalism and sustainability.

Contrary to common perception, minimalism is not about having and doing as little as possible of everything. It’s about having as much as you need of things you value, and not spending money on one thing extra. It’s only doing your highest value work that feels good and is needed, and not using up time on anything that’s not necessary or fun.

So for instance, we don’t have office space, because we’re happy working from home and libraries and coffee shops. That’s how I get my five miles of walking in every day, by having a coffee shop just far enough from my house that it gives me a good, regular workout. But we do have really good computers, because they’re our tools for making all this possible, and we need to work with the best tools (otherwise it’s a waste of time and productivity.)

Obviously, minimalism requires knowing what it is that you value, and learning how to recognize opportunities that fit your values. So for example, sitting on a conference call is neither enjoyable nor an effective way to get things done, compared to our other methods. We therefore say no to anything that requires us to participate in conference calls. But long one-on-one walks are both connecting and inspiring, so even if they’re not strictly necessary to get work done, we do them because we value them.

Does it seem too foolish to use conference calls as a filter for involvement in a project? Isn’t this letting a minor detail get in the way of bigger issues? Surprisingly, no. A request to submit to conference calls is a great clue that we won’t be able to use our best minimalist methods. We will have to substitute process for true organization, and waste precious time. Using simple assays like “no conference calls” to inspect opportunities for minimalism is itself a great tool of minimalism.

Minimalism is related to another principle that means a lot to us: sustainability. If you only spend time and money on essential things, and get really good at saying NO to everything else, you can keep your project going pretty much indefinitely.

All three of us here at QS labs: me, Gary, and Kevin, have watched many venture funded companies come and go over the years. We understand why people take this route, and we always root for people in our community to succeed with their startups. But for ourselves, we’ve decided that this method is not the best. A truism of the startup culture is that investors only expect one in ten of their companies to succeed. While it’s good that people have a chance to fail, and failure isn’t held against people who take risks, we don’t particularly want to fail. It hurts us to see friends rush headlong towards failure, afraid to be honest with themselves because of the burden of the financial obligations they’ve accrued. We’d like better odds for ourselves, and for our community members and collaborators.

One way to improve the odds is to be able to start small, take time, listen, experiment, and learn. Not taking any investment funding allows us to do this. We considered making QS Labs a nonprofit, but when we looked into it we found that even this approach involved more overhead (paperwork, board of directors, meetings) than we felt was necessary. In the end, we decided just to articulate our social vision and get to work.

Also, though it isn’t talked about very much, emotional sustainability is as important as financial sustainability. If you consistently do things you don’t like because you feel like they need to be done for some reason, you are likely to burn out. Why not think about other ways to get the same results, that are also enjoyable for you? For us, focusing on being gentle with ourselves and taking good care of our emotional and physical well-being is a priority. This has many good effects, including allowing us to imagine continuing to do this work for a long time.

I hope this inspires you to consider what you value in your work, and find ways to bring more of that into your daily routine in a simple, sustainable way.

(Thanks to lisbotk for the great photo!)

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